June 2016

Thank you Geeks Give Team 2016 for your support of Chicago Cares!

Geeks Give Team 2016

WP_20160625_09_51_48_ProChicago Cares, truly, and we couldn’t be more thankful. This weekend, our Geeks Give team joined Chicago Cares for the annual Serve-A-Thon, celebrating our 15th year working alongside local businesses to brighten our community. With more than 20 volunteers from various business groups, retail stores and family members, we headed to the Englewood neighborhood to get work done. At Earle STEM Academy, we worked to motivate students using fresh paint, special quotes from leaders, and mosaics highlighting science, technology and leaders.


We know the impact that projects like this can make in our neighborhoods. Not only will we brighten the environment of Earle STEM Academy, we’re hoping to inspire today’s students and the generations to come.

More pictures from the event:

Graduations, Celebrations, and Commemoration

It’s been a tough couple weeks. Without getting into politics or rhetoric, the loss of 49 innocent lives in Orlando shakes you to the core. The randomness of the awful event, the lack of control for the safety of a loved one.

That’s why it was so terrific to participate, support and applaud the accomplishments of a host of positive,  energetic events recently in the Chicago community. Let’s start with our great kids at Lake View High School. As mentioned in a previous blog, the Microsoft team was invited to participate in the commencement ceremony. It’s amazing to think that barely 4 years ago, these college-bound students were Freshmen, just starting in the City’s first Early College STEM program. As they have grown, so has the Early College STEM Program grown up. Special programs like the ISTI STEM Challenge have been added to supplement the experiential learning for the STEM Students.

Students were exposed to the corporate and business world through summer internships at tech and tech-related summer internships. And, perhaps most important, the Lake View High School Early College STEM students received college credentials and resume-building qualifications and documentation that set them apart in the college application process. Congratulations to all the students, their families, faculty and staff!

LVHS 2016 Grad

From graduation and high school, we moved to a different kind of “commencement” ceremony —the absolutely amazing Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) Sustain-A-City Celebration for the 2016 Urban Sustainability Apps Competition. The June 5th Apps Competition resulted in 4 terrific ideas (out of a landmark 15 teams) and our wonderful community partner Comcast hosted a huge celebration of the top ideas at Studio Xfinity. We heard lightning round pitches from the leaders.







Congratulations to Keeana Barber and Maurice Gunn, whose anonymous crime reporting app won our 2016 Urban Sustainability Apps Competition! 




The week of celebration continued with a new program, hosted by Congressman Danny Davis and his amazing staff. The focus was to provide more exposure about careers in STEM for Youth in the Congressman’s district. Think of this as precursor to what Lake View Students learn every day. The Congressman hosted the inaugural Youth Technology Town Hall, including speakers from all areas of tech and high tech, and demo’s for the students to play and learn about technology.




Microsoft was honored to be on the Career Panel and our amazing team from the Retail Store hosted an Entertainment Bar with devices and cool examples of how technology is fun. We look forward to hosting the Second Youth Technology Town Hall at the Microsoft Technology Center on October 13.

As a capstone to a week filled with “positivity”, our Civic Tech Fellow Kevin Wei and I were included in the graduation of the Second Cohort for the University of Chicago Civic Leadership Academy (CLA), held on June 17 on the UChicago Campus.


This was a very, very special ceremony. The keynote address was from Julia Stasch, CEO of MacArthur Foundation. Julia tackles the big, hard issues straight on—and this evening she was spot on, saying “Despite progress on many fronts, racial inequality& disparities persist. We need inside and outside strategies “, asking the graduates to take a leadership role in solving urban problems.

CLA Graduate Kia Coleman gave an inspiring speech, echoing the thoughts of many that week: “I stand with any person or community who has been marginalized.” And Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle also added her congratulations and thanks to the graduate, urging them to “help keep our democracy strong”.

What started as a troubling couple of weeks, with the predictable personal aftershocks of anger, doubt, sadness and a little fear, ended with inspiring stories of Lake View High School students  equipped for careers in the Digital Economy; with creative app solutions developed by a team in Englewood to help solve crime in our cities; with a Congressman and his staff helping to fill the pipeline of youth prepared to have careers in STEM, and with the graduation of our local civic leaders with their skills, their academic insight and even their souls fine-tuned to address urban challenges.

Here is what I learned about Chicago and myself the last couple of weeks:

  • If the City does not work for everyone, it does not work at all.
  • If I don’t raise my voice, who will?
  • I stand with any person or community which has been marginalized.

Chicago is facing serious challenges, and the way to address that is through leadership. And we have a great start with the Early College STEM Program, with CNT’s Urban Sustainability Apps Competition, with Congressman Davis’ Youth Technology Town Hall and with the University of Chicago’s Civic Leadership Academy. All working concurrently, simultaneously, and with similar missions: to grow our leadership to improve our City.

I love it.

Congratulations to UChicago’s 2016 Civic Leadership Academy Graduates!

University of Chicago’s Civic Leadership Academy: Why Didn’t We Think of This Before?

Over the past two years, we have been thrilled to support the University of Chicago’s Civic Leadership Academy (CLA). CLA is a training program in conjunction with LISC Chicago and the Civic Consulting Alliance that seeks to develop a pipeline of high-potential government and nonprofit leaders, advance the missions of their organizations, and grow the civic infrastructure of Chicago.

Last week, we celebrated the graduation of CLA’s second cohort. In an inspiring night of tech and positivity, we honored the bright minds working to make Chicago the best city it can be.

Here are our top tweets from the event:


Pomp and Circumstance and Cheers and Tears!


Congratulations to the Lake View High School Class of 2016! The first class of Early College STEM School students to graduate!

We know the feel of summer in the City. 90 degrees following mid 50’s. That feeling of “at last! Good weather is here!” And the sound of Pomp and Circumstance as the graduates file into the auditorium, phones and cameras snapping, friends and family cheering, and there goes Mom and Dad, wiping tears. With all the challenges facing Chicago Public Schools, let’s be sure and celebrate the successes as they are richly deserved.


On June 15, 2016, a capacity crowd filled the Auditorium Theatre to celebrate the Lake View High School Class of 2016. There is a lot to celebrate—over $12 Million in Scholarships; a huge portion of the Senior class going directly into 2 year or 4 year college or the military; 13 National Honor Society award winners and over 60 STEM Graduates. While graduation is a time of completion, it is also a time for looking forward. The valedictorian address by Jack Luzadder and the Celebratory Song “Rather Be” sung by the Lake View Senior Choir carried this theme.

Lani Phillips LVHS

Microsoft was honored to have our General Manager Sherlaender “Lani” Phillips as a Guest Speaker. Lani’s comments beautifully captured the emotions in the room: Live your life with no regrets, find your voice and drive change in this world.

As I watched, clapped and yes—cried a little, I reflected on the initial call nearly four years ago from the Mayor’s office, asking Microsoft to support Lake View High School and the Early College STEM Program.

Since that time, we are truly become partners with the administration, the faculty and best of all, the students. Our support has covered a wide range, and we have learned a lot on both sides about how best to encourage students to learn about STEM careers:


LVHS Partnership Highlights

The path to gaining 21st Century skills takes many forms. After four years of working with CPS and Lake View High School, I believe that the best path is the one with several elements: supportive private sector role models, engaged and energetic teachers (thank you, Lake View!), multiple experiences that showcase what the real world of work looks like (summer internships, tours) and a strong curriculum that encourages individuality and exploration.

Congratulations again to the Lake View High School Class of 2016! Go Wildcats! Embrace the world—it’s yours and you are ready for it! Many thanks to Principal Scott Grens, Assistant Principal Angela Newton and the entire staff and faculty at Lake View for your partnership.

LVHS 2016 Grad

How Do You Sustain a City?


How Do You Sustain a City?

There are many ways to approach this question — through community involvement, new technologies, and more direct government, for example — and the answers came to light at last week’s Urban Sustainability Apps Competition Sustain-A-City celebration presented by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT). Together with Chicago’s friends, we saw the product of months of hard work creating technology to create scalable, app-based solutions to neighborhood issues.

Congratulations to this year’s winning team, Keeana Barber and Maurice Gunn, who created an anonymous crime reporting app, Stop Crime App. Second and third place prizes went to Chi Safe Path and Neighbors Creating Neighborhoods, respectively, with People’s Choice being awarded to Schedule Scout.

Read about all of CNT’s Urban Sustainability Apps Competition finalists here.

Our favorite tweets from the event:

Democratization of Data and the Rise of Data Literacy

The democratization of data is one of the most powerful forces shaping society today. Not so long ago, the gathering of data, its storage, and its analysis was, for the most part, the work of a fairly small circle of highly trained people.  Researchers used social science methods and data largely drawn from national surveys to produce accurate information that policy makers could use to make key decisions. But things are very different today.

The walls of training and barriers to access that used to make data the province of an educated elite—the people who could interact with a raw dataset, had access to the right software, could extract meaning from the data, and understood the limitations of the sources—have fallen.  Today anyone with a mobile device can access, create, analyze, and disseminate vast quantities of information.  This is the democratization of data.

And this transformation is producing a lot of valuable work that advances the public good. Here in Chicago, I am struck by the work of Smart Chicago and the Art Institute of Chicago who cohosted an event that explored the relationship between information technology, urban space, and the public good in the age of big data.   Another example is the Chicago Tribune’s remarkable data journalism series revealing that the city’s red light cameras were looking more like cash registers than traffic monitors.    

While there are lots of positive aspects of data democratization, there are plenty of challenges to address, many of them having to do with making sure the vast new sources of data are used wisely and well. What’s important now is expanding data literacy: helping make the public informed consumers of what they are seeing, reading, and using.  When the data no longer flows through the hands of the experts, it must come with added education so that people can use it wisely and to their advantage.

This is where some of the lessons learned during the days when we were figuring out how to use data in the service of democracy can still be very important and useful.  It is important to remember that analysis of data is a science and whether we are compiling a dataset from traditional survey data or scraping it from social media, there are key questions we must keep in mind.  First, is it representative of the population or phenomenon we are trying to understand?  Second, is it big enough for us to draw meaningful conclusions?  Third, is it asking the right questions, in the right ways, to address what we need to know?  Fourth, is it open and transparent about its limitations and possible biases.  Without this information, it is hard to trust the results. The election season certainly provides plenty of examples of data being put to use to advance a preconceived point of view.

The democratization of data can be a powerful force for good and it will certainly transform the ways society makes informed decisions.  As that transformation takes place it is important to keep both the data sound and the science intact.

Dan Gaylin at the NORC in Chicago, Ill., on Thursday, November 5, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Nelles)Dan Gaylin is President and CEO of NORC at the University of Chicago, one of the nation’s premier social science research institutes.  Gaylin’s career has spanned think tanks, commercial consulting, and government.  A nationally recognized expert on health policy and program evaluation, his work has focused on using complex data of many different types and sophisticated analysis to inform some of the most important issues facing society.  At NORC he leads a staff of 2000 people who conduct research across the spectrum of the human experience including economics, markets and the workforce; education training and learning; global development; health and well-being; and society and public affairs.

City Digital’s Latest Projects Head Underground


It has been a while since I have written about City Digital.  And that is not for lack of things going on.  On the contrary, the City Digital team has been collecting partners and lighting up projects that can only be done in the collaborative model that the consortium provides. Let me take a step back and give you the City Digital Background.

City Digital is one of the UI LABS consortia (or “labs” as they call them).  In addition to Microsoft, corporate players include Accenture, ComEd, Siemens, Tyco and HBK Engineering.  Together with leaders from the city and the region’s academia, City Digital looks at how the city itself can be used as a testbed for testing solutions in the spaces of water, transportation, energy, and physical infrastructure.  Having perspectives from industry, government, and academics provides a wealth of ideas on how to solve problems that are facing urban environments everywhere.  Not to mention the projects themselves providing a wealth of data to be crunched for the same goal.

The first two pilot projects are now under way.  Both involve what lies just beneath the surface of the city.  One pilot, called Smart Green Infrastructure Monitoring (SGIM) tackles the issue of urban flooding.  When our sewer system was built (over 100 years ago), storms behaved differently than they do today.  Storms today are more intense, localized, and shorter in duration, reflecting the dynamics of climate change.  Combined with the expansion of roadways and asphalt (at the expense of green spaces), and you have local flooding, transportation obstructions, contamination of water due to runoff and drainage into the lake.  

The SGIM pilot is placing low-cost sensors into “green elements” that live alongside the built “grey infrastructure” in various locations around the city.  Green elements include things like permeable pavers and bioswales (landscaping and vegetation placed to promote drainage into the soil, and remove pollution from surface runoff water) placed in areas that traditionally flood.  The sensors can report back on the volume of water diverted from the sewer system and processed naturally.  Over time, it can also determine the quality of that water.  And since different places flood in different ways, the data will help us determine which green elements work best under various conditions.  

The first of the sensors are in place, and soon they will be pushing data out for analysis.   In fact, one of the green infrastructure installations is on Goose Island itself, home to UI LABS.  What looks like a cluster of rocks caged at the base of a mound of soil is actually a bioswale in action.  When it is in full swing, we will be able to use the data to build models to improve the engineering design principles of Green Infrastructure, and ultimately reduce flooding, riverbank overflows, and water contamination.  

The second pilot project is also involves what is below the surface: Underground Infrastructure Mapping.  “Exactly what infrastructure is underground?”, you may ask.  And that is exactly what this project strives to answer.   Think about what has to be under the pavement to make a city run.  There are sewer pipes and water lines, gas lines, power cables, telco cabling, not to mention the subway.  And then there is the infrastructure to support all of these things.  How long have they been underground?  Long enough that there is still telegraph conduit to be found.  

Chicago is hardly unique in this respect.  Cities all over the world have limited (and often times inaccurate or obsolete) data on underground assets, including assets not owned by the city itself (think utility and telco assets.  Picture yourself as someone from the water department going in to make a repair that requires ripping up a section of the street.  You block traffic (creating carbon from idling cars), you bring in construction equipment (more carbon), you remove the section of the street (more carbon), and…you run into utility infrastructure that was unmapped or mismapped.  So, you cover up the hole you just made (adding carbon to the environment), and starting again somewhere else.

The Underground Infrastructure Mapping pilot seeks to develop an engineering grade, common, secure data platform that can create, consume, consolidate, organize, and store 3D infrastructure data, effectively mapping the complex underground network.  The pilot focuses on developing a platform that will enable virtual mapping to help monitor those underground structures. In addition to overcoming inefficiencies and costs created by antiquated maps for underground projects, the pilot will also improve underground design coordination, reduce redundant digging operations and accidental interruptions of service, increase the accuracy of utility information and optimize the way this information is obtained.  A major win for any city.

These two pilots are just the tip of the spear.  Already, the parties that make up City Digital are talking about the next leading edge projects to test.  Any urban environment is ripe for capitalizing on the opportunity afforded by new ways of sourcing, combining, and analyzing data.  Chicago just happens to be the best petri dish out there.

Making Chicago The Most Accessible City in the Nation

Mayor's Office for People With Disabilities

“Making Chicago The Most Accessible City in the Nation,” is the tag line and mission of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) where I serve as Commissioner.

Chicago was the first city to establish a cabinet-level department strictly dedicated to the needs of our residents with disabilities.  In the 25 years since MOPD was established, Mayor Daley and Mayor Emanuel have committed to appointing a person with a disability to lead the office.

Our work is focused broadly on three priorities: Keeping people with disabilities independent, helping Chicago to be compliant with accessibility laws and codes, and ensuring the voice and needs of the disability community into City policymaking.

Access Chicago

Each year we serve over 45,000 individuals by making homes wheelchair accessible, preparing job seekers, delivering home-maker services, and providing individualized needs assessments and advocacy.

We are unique in that Chicago has its own local accessibility code allowing MOPD to review and permit architectural plans. This means ensuring that those designing, constructing or rehabbing schools, parks, theaters, stores, restaurants and office and apartment buildings, have plans that are compliant with federal, state and local accessibility codes. We also partner with key City departments during the design phase of new city infrastructure projects to ensure the broadest number of people of disabilities can access amenities such as the Loop Link, new CTA rail stations, the Riverwalk, and our City’s summer music, movie and food festivals. Our broad disability policy work focuses on everything from developing accessible city emergency plans to incentivizing more wheelchair accessible taxicabs to be on the road.

As a person with a disability I am truly honored to be in a position where I can meaningfully impact my own community.

018 braille flagLast year when Chicago and the nation commemorated the 25th ADA anniversary, I took time reflect on how far our city, our nation and my own life experience has changed for the better.

As a lifelong wheelchair user, I grew up long before the ADA’s passage, in a very inaccessible world. I could rarely cross a street independently due to lack of curb ramps at the end of sidewalks. I was routinely carried into stores and restaurants with stairs by my family and friends. I could not ride the public bus after school with my friends because at the time, they had no wheelchair lifts.

Fast forward to adulthood, and I can now easily access most any store or restaurant I want, ride any CTA bus and cross a street with ease in my wheelchair. Just in my lifetime, so much has changed thanks to the ADA and countless committed advocates and public servants.

While tremendous progress has been made, many with disabilities still face challenges gaining access to affordable and accessible housing, quality education, technology and competitive employment.

Tackling these broad challenges is also a part of MOPD’s commitment to make Chicago truly livable for people with disabilities. A world-class city is one that meets the needs of people at all stages of their life. When these needs become part of the mindset of both policy making and architectural design from the very beginning, we can build truly great cities that include everyone now and into the future.

Personal Democracy Forum 2016: Mission Accomplished!


With apologies to all holidays, birthdays, and vacation days, my favorite two days of the year are the Personal Democracy Forum, which took place last week in New York.   Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) brings together a diverse set of people who think about our democracies, and build tools, solutions, policy, and research that tackles some of the greatest challenges to our society.  The audience includes technologists, journalists, authors, researchers, political and government officials, campaign leaders, and a myriad of others to talk about the change that could happen, has happened, and will happen with respect to democratic principles in an era of nearly limitless supply of data and technology.  

The theme of this year’s PDF was “The Tech We Need”.   This was far from a cheering session for technology solutions.  It was a far more nuanced discussion, looking at technology as an enabler, empowering us to come together and act together in new ways, and also looking at the tech-driven externalities that impede social or political progress.  

To be certain, great examples abounded for technology as a driver for democratic inclusion and participation:

  • Andrew Konya talked about his conversation platform called Remesh.  Remesh uses artificial intelligence to create the voice that best represents a movement, as accurately as possible and in real time.  
  • In a discussion on digital strategies for government, Seamus Kraft talked about OpenGov Foundation’s Madison Project. Madison allows citizens to use the internet to access the law as it’s being crafted, leave comments, annotate specific content, and interact with legislation authors and other citizens.  
  • Civic Hall took the opportunity to launch Civic Hall Labs.  Civic Hall Labs will leverage their considerable line up of talent in order to design, build, and study digital tools for public good. Further, Civic Hall Lab’s Erin Simpson (along with Microsoft’s Matt Stempeck and Civic Hall’s Micah Sifry) unveiled the Civic Tech Field Guide.  The Field Guide strives to define civic tech, organize a taxonomy for the functions civic tech can perform, and lay out the best ways to organize for impact (both using technology and people).  

The “we” in the “Tech We Need” was, at times, broadly defined as society in general.  And it was also more specifically defined in terms of communities that can benefit the most by a digital organizing mechanism:

  • Take Esra’a Al-Shafei, founder of Majal.org, CrowdVoice, mideasttunes and others. Her communities are defined geographically, socially and culturally. She works for human rights while standing between autocratic powers and the political obstacles facing the LGBTQ community in her home region. Believing that change can only happen from within, she is a leading force for multiple grassroots efforts to inspire a generation to recognize both the immediacy of the opportunity before them, and the existential consequences of inaction.
  • Egyptian Activist Wael Ghonim depicted how the Egyptian revolutionary movement started with Facebook posts, then progressed to simple public actions to build momentum. He then described why optimizing for engagement using technology and social networks can be self-defeating if it leads to echo chambers, flame wars, or simply a “valley of open-mindedness”.  
  • Black Lives Matter co-creator Alicia Garza brought the house down using the movement to illustrate how you cannot simultaneously be pro-social change and anti-disruption.  You can’t sustain engagement in a society that expects a segment to participate in democracy without reaping the benefits of democracy.

Of course, the very same technologies that we use to collaborate, the social networks we use to inspire action, and the data that we use to influence change all come at a cost.  The cost is sometimes an unintended externality.  Or it could be based on intent, or even a business model.

  • MIT Professor Sherry Turkle cautioned us that these same technologies that can bring us together to act collectively also have the potential to drive an artificial digital wedge between humans. People today have an “always available” screen that they use to avoid the lulls of life and anxiety of real time interaction.  The casualty in this: empathy.  “Technology is giving us a chance to run from each other, and we’re taking it” Turkle said, noting that she is not anti-technology, rather pro-empathy.  
  • UCLA’s Safiya Noble Called out racial bias in search results, pointing out that when you are dealing with search engines, you are dealing with advertising algorithms.  The externality turns out to be the reinforcement of the negative patterns of our society: the objectification of women, adverse or harmful portrayal of minorities, etc.
  • Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian journalist, reasoned on how “post-web journalism” is journalism encapsulated in social networks.  Social networks are trying desperately to keep us on the inside, and they are succeeding, leading serious journalism to lose its audience.
  • Microsoft data and ethics researcher Kate Crawford called for a rigid study of discrimination in artificial intelligence algorithms. The value systems inherent in big data algorithms have real societal impact. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a crisis to see that impact.

These were just a few examples of the exceptional speakers and vital topics that were covered.  It was a balanced discussion of what technology can do for us, flanked by discussion of what it can do to us.  The conversation was all at once inspiring and cautionary.  At a time when the civic tech movement is trying to define itself and its role in creating better, more inclusive, and more productive democracies, the conversations could not have been more on point.  It left me motivated to learn more, engage more, and do more.  So, PDF…mission accomplished.

Fellow Profile: Ivoire Morrell

Ivoire MorrellName: Ivoire Morrell

Where are you from?: Born and raised in Lansing, Michigan

School/grade/major: Lawrence Technological University, Senior, Computer Science

Last thing you searched on Bing: YouTube

Why did you choose Microsoft’s fellowship program? I chose Microsoft’s fellowship program because it combined two of my passions (computer science and community outreach) into one position that allows me to make a positive impact on the Detroit community.

What’s your favorite technology that’s improving Detroit? My favorite technology that’s helping improve Detroit is Microsoft’s new software PowerBI. I have been working with PowerBI over the past few weeks and I have created some awesome visualizations with data extracted from Data Driven Detroit (D3). PowerBI allows user to create stunning visuals that are loaded with informative information.

What projects are you working on for your position as tech fellow for MSFT Chicago? As the MSFT tech fellow for Detroit, I am working on several projects including: help initialize a Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup) for the city of Detroit, help D3 build a data coalition for the city of Detroit, assist in building programs for MSFT YouthSpark program, building visualizations using PowerBI to help impact the community, and developing a “top 40” for the city of Detroit to discover what Detroit citizens want most in their communities.

What excites you about civic tech? What excites me about civic tech is its hybrid nature of technology and community outreach. Being able to be part of a movement that combines data analytics and community outreach is beyond exciting. Civic tech is revolutionizing the way communities are being rebuilt and to be a part of this amazing movement is a dream come true. I hope to make lasting impact of the city of Detroit that improves the quality of living for generations to come.

What’s one problem you hope civic tech will solve for cities? One problem I hope to solve with civic tech is the high poverty level in cities like Detroit. When the quality of living is poor for so many people, it creates holistic environments that drive people to do whatever is necessary to survive. High poverty, in my opinion, equates to high crime, so I strive to be an agent of change that helps build economically broken communities into economically stable communities, which will lead to a higher mean household income for the city of Detroit, diminishing poverty, and lower crime rates. “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link” and until the suffering communities are shown the same focus as the striving communities, Detroit won’t reach its full potential.